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We walked carefully across the black sand beach in the hours in between sunset and the rise of the moon, the darkest of the day.  Trailing behind a man named Hernan, a local poacher turned conservationist, the 4 of us visitors were very much out of our element.  We trekked for miles up and down the coastline looking for essentially a dinosaur.  If we were lucky enough to find one who was nesting, we gather her tennis-sized ball eggs and hurry them back to a safe place to incubate and hatch.


Sure enough, about an hour into our shift, Hernan spotted movement.  How he could see anything in the thick darkness was beside us, but we knew his eyes and ears were trained to these conditions.  This is the benefit of working with locals and one of many reasons that locals are the only sustainable long-term answer to conserving threatened species and ecosystems.


A nesting adult leatherback sea turtle.  What a sight she was.  She was over 6 feet long and weighed nearly 1,500 pounds. Yet despite her size, she moved with such grace and fluidity as she made final preparations for laying her eggs.  Leatherbacks, like most sea turtles, dig deep holes with their rear flipper.  It’s more like a well. This one was roughly 70 centimeters down and once she gets deep enough, she widens it at the bottom to build a cavern-like structure.  Shortly after our arrival, as we recorded her measurements for the conservation team, the eggs began to release.  I was instructed to get on my belly, crawl up to my shoulders behind and under her rear, and reach down to grab the eggs as they dropped.


One might think this would startle her, but the biology team informed us that nesting mothers go into a sort of trance like state when releasing their eggs, blocking off most activity around them. This is why poachers are able to easily grab these eggs as well, should they arrive at a nesting mother before the biology team does.


There were 79 eggs in all which we placed into a disinfected bag.  I volunteered to carry them back to the hatcher. No easy task given the enormous weight of the eggs plus the care for which they needed to be carried; held out from my body with both hands so as not to sway or crash against my hips or torso on the hike back.  A local poacher came by claiming he saw the turtle first.  But Hernan quickly objected and off we went back to the hatchery.


30 minutes later, the eggs were safe and secure. We dug a hole and carved it with the exact same dimensions as the nesting mother and covered it up to incubate for the next 1-2 months.


This was the experience on our recent trip to Costa Rica.  We took 25 incredible people down to a remote coastline beach, home to the non-profit Latin American Sea Turtles.  For a week we all worked as citizen scientists, aiding the biology team and local community in beach patrols, hatchery shifts, and food preparation.  It was an intense, grueling week, and a bit of a wake up call for folks who think working in wildlife conservation is a glamorous, 24/7 Instagram worthy adventure.  It’s not.  It’s cold showers, mosquito nets, humidity, sore feet, and uneven sleep.  Yet as we learned, those who commit themselves to this work do it for a reason greater than their own personal needs and comfort, and the appreciation we gained from that really shaped the week down there.




Turtles Under Threat = Humans Under Threat


The biology team taught us that for every 1,000 eggs safely rescued, on average just 1 will make it all the way successfully into adulthood as a sea turtle.  The early odds against survival have long been defined by nature to some degree.  Much of the threat in those first days and weeks of life comes from predators – from birds and lizards as the hatchlings scramble from the beach to the ocean – to a variety of marine life once in the water.


Humans, however, have greatly contributed to these shrinking odds for survival. From plastic pollution to rising ocean temperatures and acidification reducing and shifting food supply to turtles getting caught in fishing nets or hit by boats.  Now add egg poaching to the mix, and we are really doing everything we can to eliminate these magnificent creatures.


Why does this matter?  We need to look far beyond the typical motivator for getting people to support conservation which comes in the form of an emotional one.  Tugging on the heart strings about population declines, suffering, and sadness. This is all very real.  It’s absolutely tragic.  However this has been used for decades and by and large, nothing has really changed.  If anything, it’s getting worse.


A more powerful message would be helping people understand just how intertwined and connected life is, and how collapsing a major anchor of any ecosystem can lead to its long term decline and collapse, either directly or indirectly, which then greatly impacts us.


The same commercial fishing lines that are snaring sea turtles are overfishing our waters, taking away critical food supply and trade for local communities that are traditionally practiced in a much more sustainable way.  The rising sea waters eroding coastlines that are robbing Leatherbacks of their valuable nesting sites are also displacing coastal human populations.  The very same seagrass beds that Green Sea Turtles graze and help regenerate are powerful plants for sequestering carbon, something the ocean does more than any other ecosystem on the planet, that we need in shape to help fight the climate crisis.


It’s critical we gain a deeper understanding of the true interconnectedness of life, and our experience in Costa Rica really shined a spotlight on this.


Local Communities Are The Answer


One of the great misunderstandings out there of wildlife poachers is that they are “evil” people, determined to profit from the exploitation and destruction of local species out of their own greed and indifference.


This is so far from the truth.  Local poachers are people just trying to survive and feed their families. In many parts of the world where wildlife flourish, this can be one of the only reliable trades that pays a true living wage.  Wildlife poaching is a well financed machine.  The source of that financing is the culprit we should be pointing fingers at.


What if the businessmen, wealthy elites, and diplomats that are out there funding poaching and trafficking did just the opposite? What if locals could be paid to protect our ecosystems instead of exploiting them?


There are numerous case studies that reveal the answer and the results are very promising.  Those same locals who are poaching would gladly hand in their poaching tools for conservation work.  They love their community, their ecosystem, and all life in it. To get there, they need to be empowered with the right information and they need to be able to make a living doing the right work.


Where will this money come from?  There are three avenues as we see it:

  1. Donations – the traditional source and fallback answer.  From big contributions from the wealthy class to small contributions from the working class, every dollar adds up.  This, however, is not a sustainable source and should only be used ideally to “grease the wheels” and kickstart work into the other two sources.
  2. Ethical Tourism – when done right, this is a strong revenue source that supports local communities and creates life long ambassadors for conservation work.  Sadly, so many operations across the world cross the ethical lines for maximizing profit. A solution?  Programs like we experienced at LAST, put on by actual conservation biologists, with thoughtful caps on size and frequency, that require patrons to put in the work and effort to contribute to the work vs. step all over it.
  3. Global Fund for Ecosystem Conservation – this is a deep rabbit hole so I’ll make it brief.  There are economics out there that show the costs we incur from further damage to our environment due to things like natural disasters and climate displacement, and the role critical ecosystems play in sequestering greenhouse gases that combat these damages.  So there is a way to back into a value everything from a mangrove forest to sea turtles serves all of us and the wealthiest nations contribute the most to climate damage can and should foot the bill to pay locals for this work.


Here at Animalia, we thought we should showcase just how possible and viable this is, and so shortly after concluding our trip, we teamed up with Latin American Sea Turtles to put together a campaign we call Patrol, Don’t Poach.


We are aiming to raise enough funds to pay locals in the community to help us patrol and protect sea turtle nests and eggs rather than poach them.  It costs just $16 per shift.  Across the 5 remaining months of hatching season – June through October – this works out to $2,500 to guarantee 1 paid patrol per day and $5,000 for 2.  They will work directly with the LAST biology team and the contingency will be they cease any and all poaching work.  While this does not pay the same rate for a big haul of eggs compared to a single shift, over the course of weeks and months it works out similarly since they get paid with us no matter if they find eggs or not.


Here are a couple photos of Hernan, the local Costa Rican who escorted me on my epic experience detailed above.


And here is proof of the payment he received in July.  We have already raised nearly $1,300 with just $3,700 left to go!


If you can contribute anything, be it a donation or sharing it out to friends, here is the link on GoFundMe.


About Animalia

Animalia connects people in a deeper way with conservation and climate action through our weekly newsletter, our podcast, travel experiences, virtual experiences, merch collabs (which serve as fundraisers), and our community.  We love this planet, love fighting for it and believe information and community are important levers in saving it.

We have a free weekly newsletter detailing conservation and climate stories from across the world. You can subscribe here. This is also where we promote and offer slots for our travel experiences such as the Costa Rican Leatherback Experience. Our next one is coming up in October working to mitigate conflict in Washington state between wild wolves and commercial agriculture.

Some Dope Upcycled Jackets and Totes

Here is a company making some upcycled jackets and totes called Arc’Teryx

Now, they still sell original source products with synthetic, petroleum derived fabrics. But at least they are putting real effort into upcycling, and hopefully as soon as non-petroleum derived fibers are ready at scale from folks like Kintra, they will make the switch over.

Most of all, they aren’t actively engaged in greenwashing like North Face.


Drone Army Vs. Ocean Plastic Pollution

Our world’s dirtiest confession is no secret: We have a massive plastic problem. Our oceans are no exception to this problem, and some may even argue that the problem is worse there than on our lands, given the high volume and direct impact plastic pollution has on marine life and its ecosystems. Many animals such as seabirds, turtles, fish, whales, rays and others often find themselves tangled in ocean plastic waste, which can often be fatal if left untangled. Some animals, like turtles, will even mistake certain plastics for food, ingest it and suffer severe health issues resultantly. And those are just the BIG plastics. Our oceans also contain microplastics, or tiny little pieces of fragmented plastic less than 5mm in length. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes, and make their way up the food chain (yes, eventually ending up in human bodies). It’s estimated that there are 14 million tons of microplastic on the ocean floor alone.

The Mighty Impact of Microplastics

And unfortunately none of that data even begins to scratch the surface. As many as 91 million metric tons of litter entered the oceans between 1990 and 2015, as much as 87% of which was plastic, according to research. An estimated 5.25 trillion particles of litter are currently floating in the oceans today. Recent funding and focus has been primarily allocated towards banning single use plastics, however many conservationists point out that there has already been a lot of damage done that needs addressing, too.

So, what is being done to solve this plastic problem? The answer is similar to that of many other world issues…. robots, of course! While around 80% of ocean plastic pollution projects are focused on monitoring only, the remaining 20% are aimed at the actual clean up. Still, the number of methods has increased exponentially recently, with 73% of all methods having been developed in the past four years alone. So you can say there has been a huge tech boom in the ocean clean-up sphere, which is great, although we do have to note that the plastic problem was reasonably understood by the late 1980’s, and we are just now seeing action (better late than never?).

Drone Army….Assemble!

Ok, so now for the whole robot/drone part. With new funding and much needed focus on the plastic pollution problem, the robot army is resultantly rising. Various robots have been developed recently, all with the purpose of clearing plastic from our oceans. Note: this mainly tackles the large plastics, and not microplastics.

Among these inventions is the sea garbage bin, which is a giant plastic-collecting barrier, and a marine drone that floats and collects garbage through a wide opening that mimics the mouth of a whale shark.

Another litter clearer is the BeachBot, a garbage collecting rover (designed after the Mars rover), that collects small trash like cigarette butts, single use utensils or plastic caps from beaches.

While these robots sound great (and kind of adorable?), many can’t help but wonder how much of a dent these will truly make in the insane mass of plastic in our oceans. Plastic production and waste accumulates faster than the inventions to reduce it. By some calculations, it would take about a century to remove 5% of plastics currently in the oceans using only clean-up devices.

We have a feeling this is just the beginning of robot solutions like this being implemented to assist with environmental issues. And while we look forward to seeing further developments, we also simultaneously continue to stress that the world also needs some serious behavior changes from a preventative standpoint if we ever want a chance of actually tackling the plastic.

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